Chicago Fire

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

It’s amazing the difference a year has made for the Chicago Fire.

At this time last year the Fire were coming off having the worst record in Major League Soccer and looked headed to another year at the bottom. The team’s attack was toothless when David Accam was injured and any early optimism in the first year for general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic waned.

In the first of three organized meetings with reporters last year, Rodriguez admitted the team’s record wasn’t good enough and preached patience. Things didn’t get much better for the Fire, which finished last for the second year in a row.

This offseason, Rodriguez made a number of big moves and the early returns are positive on most of them. Dax McCarty has vastly improved the team’s midfield and possession play, with goalkeeper Matt Lampson calling him the team’s MVP after practice on Tuesday. Nemanja Nikolic leads the league in goals, something unthinkable in the first half of last year when the Fire struggled to get one or two shots on target, let alone goals, during a match. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the big name player fans have been waiting years for and he has delivered on the $5.4 million price tag.

When Rodriguez fielded questions from reporters for an hour on Tuesday, the Fire had the third most points in Major League Soccer. He could have referenced the patience he called for a year ago and boasted about the vindication. Instead, he said, as coach Veljko Paunovic did in the past week, that the team still hasn’t accomplished anything.

“For sure I sleep a little better,” Rodriguez said. “For sure you can’t wait for the next game even sooner, especially when you’re on a good patch I think. There’s so much ground yet to cover. This is a very difficult league to prognosticate and predict, even from week-to-week.

“I think it’s my job to try to see through the results, again continue to measure our process and how we’re progressing against that process to try to make sure that we don’t have any blind spots to ourselves and what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. To push the group to constantly self-reflect and improve.”

[MORE FIRE: Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire]

Rodriguez also said the Fire’s positive start hasn’t changed his expectations for this season either.

“We have to be a little bit modest, given that we as a club have struggled for so many years,” he said. “The first bar, and it’s a low bar, but it’s the playoffs.

“Our expectations were to make the playoffs. Our expectations were to contend or win the Open Cup championship and those continue to hold.”

He did admit that “skepticism is understandable” from fans who have seen the team struggle for several years. Schweinsteiger’s arrival and the team’s improved record have created what he described as a momentum, and not just on the field.

“There’s certainly a buzz,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also still that small, but loud group of wallowers who are just hoping that the wheels come off or still want different players than the ones we acquired. That will still be there, perhaps until we win a championship. Overall, I think there is an excitement that’s building.”

This is the high point of Rodriguez's still-young tenure with the club. The Fire feature a World Cup winner, have one of the best records in the league and there’s a buzz around the team. What a difference a year makes, indeed.

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

The Chicago Fire's unbeaten run at Toyota Park is now a thing of the past.

The Fire couldn't hold off league-leading Toronto FC and are now nine points below TFC in the standings. If the two teams are to meet in the playoffs, the Fire will have to improve on some things, but there were positives from the Fire's perspective.

Here's a look at some of the key match ups on the field from Saturday's 3-1 win for the Reds.

Jozy Altidore vs. Christian Dean

On the surface, Jozy Altidore had a quiet game for Toronto. He only had one shot and it was blocked.

However, Altidore put on a clinic on how a forward can be effective without being involved directly in scoring opportunities. His hold up and back-to-goal play were key to reliever pressure for Toronto and he allowed his teammates to play off of him.

Altidore’s ability to win aerial duels and 50-50 balls meant Toronto didn’t have to play out of the back if it didn’t want to. If the defense was under too much pressure, Toronto still had a good opportunity to keep the ball and have something positive happen with a decently directed clearance towards Altidore.

Beyond that, his back-to-the-goal play in and near the penalty box was killer. He was credited with three key passes, which was best on Toronto and only matched on the Fire by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Patrick Doody, and had three more passes that were either completed from or into the box.

Toronto is paying Altidore the big bucks to score goals and he didn't do that Saturday, but because the team is so deep, just giving other players on the team better chances can be good enough for TFC to win big games.

The Fire had to adjust to Altidore's presence and that was Christian Dean's assignment. The recently acquired defender is another big body like Altidore. There's a reason why all of the photos of Dean from the set of USA Today wire photos are with him within reach, or actually touching, Altidore. For the most part, Dean succeeded is keeping Altidore out of scoring chances, but Altidore still won most of the physical battles.

Drew Conner vs. Justin Morrow

Whether it was by design or whether it was just what was available, Drew Conner seemed to be a focal point of the Fire's attack for much of Saturday's match. Conner played right back with Matt Polster still out injured. It was a tough assignment for him as well, going up against Toronto's left wing back Justin Morrow, who was called into the U.S. national team during the team's victorious Gold Cup run.

Morrow has scored five goals this year and can be a dangerous part of the attack coming from overlapping positions. He wasn't a major factor on Saturday although he did have a few dangerous moments in the first half.

This may have been because Conner was so aggressive in the Fire's attack. He was dribbling at his defenders on a regular basis, though not always successfully. Conner was credited with nine crosses, three of which were completed.

The Fire's reliance on crosses continued with 26 attempted in the match to Toronto's 12. Consider those numbers with the fact that Toronto outshot the Fire 18-15.

Conner's aggression may have kept Morrow more honest defensively, but it didn't result in many chances for the Fire. A near post header from Michael de Leeuw in the 24th minute off a Conner cross was a good one, but de Leeuw wasn't able to put the header on target.

It's getting repetitive, but the Fire need to find ways to attack from central positions. That will help Nemanja Nikolic in his current goal drought and give defenses multiple things to worry about as opposed to just defending crosses all the time.

Schweinsteiger's 'I'm not in Europe anymore' moment

Watch big name stars with plenty of high-level experience in MLS and inevitably there will be a play every so often that said player will be frustrated by the lack of ability and/or understanding of his teammates. MLS isn't anywhere near as good as the best European leagues so these things happen when these star players are used to playing with the best of the best. Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry were among the most amusing in these instances.

Schweinsteiger had a play like that on Saturday that had to be shared. It isn't the harshest indictment of his teammate, in this case it's Conner, but it's still somewhat amusing.

Schweinsteiger is open in the middle of the field and puts his arms up to call for the ball and show that he's open. However, there's probably not a right back in MLS who can reliably make this pass with two players in between Conner and Schweinsteiger. To his credit, Conner kept pushing forward on the dribble and the Fire got into the attacking third anyway.

Either way, soak it in: a World Cup and Champions League winner calls for a ball in MLS and gets ignored.

It doesn't stop there. In the 71st minute there's a longer version of Schweinsteiger being wide open clapping for the ball. This goes on for several seconds (eight if you count).

The Fire were constantly attacking from wide areas. Here's a world class player wanting the ball in a central area and he's wide open. He probably should get the ball here. The resulting cross at the end of this gif is headed harmlessly away.

Feel free to add your own caption of what's going through Schweinsteiger's head here.

Dax McCarty looks back on joining the Fire in candid interview

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USA TODAY

Dax McCarty looks back on joining the Fire in candid interview

Dax McCarty is pretty much a reporters' dream. He is a good player, a nice guy, a funny guy and, perhaps most importantly for reporters, he's brutally honest.

Since McCarty has arrived with the Chicago Fire he has given his view of how things should be or what's wrong with the team on a regular basis. In this case, he appeared in an MLSsoccer.com video feature with former Fire player Calen Carr. The video is about the Fire's resurgence this season and the All-Star Game coming to Chicago.

With the Fire solidly in a playoff position, even despite the team's current slump, McCarty looked back on his initial feelings about being traded to the Fire after the club had finished last in the league two straight seasons.

"I think saying coming to a club that had been on hard times is putting it lightly," McCarty said to Carr. "You're being very polite.

"It was one of those situations where you think about it and at first you're like, 'Oh, wow this sucks. I'm going to one of the worst teams in the league.' But then you take a step back and you start to have that belief in yourself that like, 'Hey, they traded for me for a reason, if I could come in and help turn this team around, help turn this club back into a winner, that'd be a really cool feeling.' I want to be known as a winner."

General manager Nelson Rodriguez also talks about the club's initiative to put a mini-pitch at Gage Park and the state of the club. Carr then talks with Patrick Stanton from Section 8 about the recent history and, as he put it, "renaissance" of the Fire this year.

The full video, embedded below, is worth a watch for Fire fans.